I paused in the lobby of an apartment building on Sixth Avenue in Bay Ridge and waited for a few seconds before pressing the buzzer.
This was in the Eighties, back when I was reporter for a local weekly newspaper, and on this particular day I was covering the suicide of a young woman who had thrown herself in front of a subway train.
I had gone to the dead woman’s building in hopes of talking to someone who knew her. I decided to start with the landlady so I rang her bell and waited.
She didn't buzz me into the building, choosing instead to talk to me over the intercom. It felt so strange leaning over to ask my questions into the speaker. I got a few static-filled responses, but the upshot was that the landlady knew virtually nothing about the dead woman.
As soon as she rang off, two teenage boys came into the lobby and when I told them that a woman from their building had killed herself, one of the exclaimed “Fresh!”
This was the Eighties after all.
Then a woman in her late thirties walked into the lobby. She was heavy, as I recall, with thick glasses and curly black hair.
I told her that one of her neighbors had committed suicide and though she didn’t know the woman, the conversation kept going. She started telling me about an incident in her life when she had an epileptic fit on a deserted subway platform.
She told me that a strange man had approached at this most critical moment when she was completely helpless.
“He could have raped me,” she said.
I told her to take care and went back to the newspaper with little to show for my efforts. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about that woman in the lobby.
I told one of my coworkers about what had happened and he was moved as well.
“All the lonely people,” he said, quoting the line from the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”
A Sermon That No One Will Hear
That was the perfect analogy. The woman in the lobby had just wanted someone to talk to, someone with whom she could share this frightening experience. Someone to listen.
As someone who has experienced long stretches of loneliness, I can sympathize. If you spend enough time alone, you’re willing to share your thoughts with just about anyone.
When I first moved back to New York I was pretty much a stranger in my hometown. In a rare moment of intimacy, my father once expressed his concern about my lack of a social circle.
“Every time I see you go out by yourself,” he said, “my heart falls right down to my shoes.”
I was so touched by this. I’ve complained a lot about my father in my life, but here he was showing genuine concern for my well-being. And then I felt guilty for upsetting him.
I called my aunt to complain about my troubles and she could hear the emotion in my voice just ready to crack.
“You better let it out,” she said gently.
And that’s just what I did, wailing into the phone uncontrollably.
“I’m always sick,” I cried, “and I’m lonely!”
I’m lonely. Even now it feels like I’m confessing to a crime.
By saying you’re lonely you’re essentially admitting that you have no friends, that you’re not popular, and that something must be wrong with you.
You can call yourself a loner because it sounds cool, but after a while “loner” can change into “loser.”
There’s been so many times when I've walk by a crowded bar, look at all the people, all the good friends, talking and laughing together, and wondered what I was doing wrong.
But I don't want this to be a "poor me" rant. There is a definite danger of getting comfortable being alone. Too many nights I actually look forward to coming home to sit in front of the TV and the computer.
I do enjoy being able to pick up and go anywhere I want anytime I want. The tough part comes when I actually get to where I’m going and I have no one to share it with. And socializing doesn't get any easier as you grow older.
I never did find out much about that woman who had jumped in front of the subway train all those years ago. But I wonder if things might have been different if there had been someone around to hear her story.